All this week, I have been watching live judging of the POYi (Pictures of the Year International) photo and multimedia contest. This year, the contest has provided a real-time Internet stream, which allows anyone with a computer to watch and listen as the photos are being judged. I’m glad things have been a bit slow at work. Right behind my desk sits a 42-inch plasma display with a laptop connected to it. When I’m in the office, all I hear are the words “out, Out, OUT!” as pictures and photo stories fly by on the big screen. Sometimes the word “in” pops through the speakers and its rarity startles me. The four judges make a decision to keep an image in only a second or two. Brutal–especially if you see your own beloved photos tossed without fanfare onto the out pile.
Entering POYi is an annual event for most serious newspaper and magazine photojournalists in the U.S. and around the world. The contest has so many entries (45,000 this year) that it takes three weeks to judge. I have entered POYi most of the years I’ve been a photojournalist. My best year was in 2000 when I placed 2nd in Feature Picture Story for a essay on a year-in-the-life of a seventh grader.
After watching the judging, I now realize how tough it is to win anything in this contest. Hundreds of entries get outed by the hour. Strong–even jaw dropping pictures–don’t make it through the first round of judging. To win even an honorable mention, is high praise indeed!
Sitting in my office chair, I am able to see images taken by many of best photojournalists working today. Yes there are stinkers in the mix. Many of the photos entered are stuff we would all be proud to have run in our own daily papers. But in this contest, the cream rises fast. Images that catch the judge’s eyes sometime confuse those sitting on the sidelines.
You see, most photo contests are filled with pictures that are variations of images that have been done to death. A colleague observed, as we watched POYi judging yesterday, that you can’t have a newspaper photography contest without a picture of an Elvis impersonator, a dog with sunglasses, a kid diving into water, or a boring silhouette being entered. These types of images are the chaff that contest judges quickly pass through in their search for excellence. Having judged many regional photo and multimedia contests, I know what these POYi judges are feeling as they hit the out button. After looking at hundreds of images, some good, many bad, all they want is to see something new, fresh and unfamiliar.
As the newspaper industry implodes upon itself, visual journalists will still be there to record the events of everyday life. As I look at this parade of powerful images, I am reminded that great photographs are often taken under the worst and precarious of situations. Watching POYI judging has made impending pay cuts and threats of layoffs at my newspaper seem less ominous. Inspiration is a terrible thing to waste. Time to get back to work.